Archive for the ‘Changing the world’ category

Life as a slumdog and education in Uganda

July 11, 2009

Highlights of my life right now:

1. I am sipping the first glorious iced coffee that I have had in about a month right now. That being said, it cost me more than an iced coffee in the States costs, but hey, one a month is not that bad.

2. WE HAVE ELECTRICITY! Finally we have wired up two classrooms at Kampala Primary School, which means that as soon as we figure out the power strip situation, we can start working with the kids and the XOs, which is what we’ve all really been waiting for this whole summer!

3. We have finished teacher training! It’s been really great, seeing the teachers evolve from being scared to use the XOs to really being empowered and curious and excited. We were doing a project the other day with them using geometry and angles and how to draw shapes on one of the programs, and it was so great to watch as someone would say they wanted to make some random shape, and they would work in twos or threes to figure out all the angles and lengths of sides and then translate that into making the computer program draw what they wanted. It was incredible to see the change, and most of all the sense of discovery and enjoyment of learning and the energy that was in the room.

I will spend the rest of this post dedicated to two things: first, describing where we’re living and a typical day, because people keep asking me about that, and second talking about a really intriguing conversation I had this morning at the school. Aplogies for the length of this – I normally try and keep my posts shorter, but I’m on unlimited internet now, so I dont have to filter 🙂
I realized that I have never really articulated well where we are living, other than saying it’s in the slums. The particular location we are staying in is interesting because it’s not a huge, vast slum that covers many square miles, as you often think of slums as. But it’s sort of a small area, maybe in Boston the equivalent to the size of MIT’s campus, give or take a bit. The distinction that sets this area apart from the surrounding area is a) no more paved roads, and b) the beginning of mounds of trash. All of the roads around where we stay are dirt roads combined with layer upon layer of plastic shopping bags, discarded shoes and clothes, and whatever else people decided to throw away for the past year or so. It’s also all very hilly, and add to that basically craters in the road, and you can start to see what it’s like. And by craters I really do mean bumps and ups and downs in the road that are maybe a foot and a half to two feet high a lot of the time. I think basically every morning I get to watch a car try and actually make it up the hill into our neighborhood, get stuck, and then hear the horrible scraping sound as the bottom of the car barely clears some bump or another. Every once and awhile where you walk around you’ll find a trash field, which is about 50 square meters just covered in trash, occasionally with a dirt path up the middle. That’s the other thing about Uganda generally, and where we’re staying specifcaly. The redddish brown dust is absolutely EVERYWHERE! I can’t walk around without getting a nice coating of dust on the bottom half of your legs that probably won’t come off without a good 20 minutes of scrubbing. I’ve just kind of abandoned that battle.

Anyway, back to my tale of our dwelling area. Usually in the mornings, I get up, and always on our way out we walk past a nursery school, so I have about ten adorable little kids saying “Bye Mzungu!” to me as I head out of the neighborhood with the occasional latch-on. There’s also a gang of guys who also yell to us mzungus as we’re leaving the school, who I tend to ignore. Then there is the dogde-ems as you try and walk along our roads where there are also cars and boda-bodas (motorcycle taxis) trying to make it up this road and avoid all of the hills. Once you do that hopefully without stepping in one of the wet mud-trash puddles on the way down, you get to a main road that is paved, still dusty and usually with a tinge of sewer smell, but nonetheless a road. For the day-time hours, we are usually up near the school, either working with teachers, eating at Bismillah, a little restaurant right next to our school, or learning Arabic. The evenings are usually some variation on eating at Blue Moon Cafe (beans, rice, and matooke for only 1500 /= or about 75 cents!) or getting a rolex or chapattis from our regular guy Julius, and then maybe some internet time. After that we tend to retire for the night so there isn’t any gate climbing adventures in the middle of the night, but every so often that has to happen. And that’s a typical day here!


This morning, while hanging out at the school, I was sitting in the P6/7 remedial session for school (the kids who aren’t doing well come into school from 8am-1pm on Saturdays, and the teachers review things) with one teacher named Robinah, who teaches social studies for those two grades. Robinah is a really interesting person; she is such a fierce woman, she isn’t afraid to try new things and was one of the first teachers to really get into the XO, spend a lot of time with it at home and to really be determined to conquer it. When you work with her, she is constantly looking for a challenge and new things to learn, and it is very obvious she is an intelligent woman with a great mind. She’s just got such a kick to her, and I love it! But yesterday and today I got to see another side of her, and how observant and caring she really is – she saw that I was wearing a certain kind of African necklace and told me that next time she was going to go to the market she would get me one, and when I was sitting with her today she got me tea and a donut, which she must have picked up in the past week or so that those were my favorites from the nearby restaurant. It’s just been great getting to see her work, and how she acts almost as a surrogate mother to all of her students, and making sure not only that they work their hardest and understand why their schooling is so important, but also making sure they take care of their well-being too.

Anyway, as we were talking this morning, I was speaking with Robinah about the adult education classes that she does at night. And she was telling me about her different students, about how some of them barely speak English when they start the classes, and how they are slowly learning not only to speak English but also to read for the first time. She even told me about one man who did all of the schooling from primary to university as an adult, which inspired his wife to try and do the same. I asked her really why education was such a problem, why so many people didn’t get schooling, and while her answers weren’t entirely surprising, still made me think. She was telling me the story of a woman who’s family didnt have much money, and how since they were coming from a fairly conservative Muslim family her father told her she couldn’t go to school because they had to pay for her brother’s schooling, and many other things. Another comment she made that I found interesting was about many men here who leave their wives and kids in the morning to go to work with almost no money, and then instead of going to work go borrow money from people for food during the day or gambling or whatever, and then come back to their families with even less money and no food for them either. It was interesting that she said that that was what she respected about Western countries – that people there are always busy, always working and making things happen, which echoed what the Mayor of the district of Kampala said when we met with him, “In America, you live on your toes, onthe balls of your feet ready to run, and here they are on their whole feet dragging.”

What we were talking about really highlighted how amazing free public education is in the US for everyone, because you rarely have people dropping out for monetary reasons, and if they do it’s in high school. Here there are a significant number of people who dont even get to start primary school beccause of money issues, and also because education isn’t seen as as valuable like it is in the US. Which got me to thinking more, how much does a government that is not corrupt, that can really get things moving espite the poverty in that country, how much can that do? Is having a motivated and active government the key to development? Can development be successful if you have a government that is dragging its feet like it is here? I think we’ll have to look to Rwanda to see ifthat is the case, but still – it’s an interesting and also frightening thing to think about – is external aid futile if the government isn’t doing anything to move the country forward too?


Off to Uganda!

May 29, 2009

Today marks one week until I am off to Rwanda/Uganda for the summer.

Rough Itinerary:

-June 6th – June 17th: Kigali, Rwanda: One Laptop Per Child Corps training

-June 17th – August 13th : Just outside of Kampala, Uganda: distribution/working with OLPCs and kids there

I am definitely excited to start out this whole journey, although I wish I had a bit more time before I had to leave.  It should be amazing though.  Rwanda and Uganda are both two of the countries I would like to visit most in Africa, so I am incredibly excited to finally see them, and to hit up another (very different!) continent.  Rwanda has fascinated me since we studied the genocide in high school, and I am incredibly interested in seeing for myself how the country has developed and healed after such a traumatic event.  It is also supposed to be an incredibly beautiful place, full of lush hills and great people.  Uganda, while a bit more on-the-beaten path (if there is such a thing in Africa), should be none-the-less intriguing.  It’s known primarily for being the beginning of the Nile, for its safaris and gorilla tracking, which I will most likely not be taking part in, and for being “the best of Africa all in one”.  We’ll be living in the slums outside of Kampala.  What exactly that means, I have no idea, since I haven’t been able to find any pictures or descriptions of where we’ll be.

What I’m the most excited about for this trip is primarily the huge amount of learning that I think I will get from it, and hopefully some progress for our project.  On the whole, I am highly skeptical of the One Laptop Per Child movement, and more generally, the idea that technology can save the world.  Are these laptops really what these people want or need?  Can they really make that big of an impact, or are there other things that could be done that would be more effective?  Just the first question alone requires a caveat.  From my, completely outsider and Western, mindset, it seems to me that the money could be spent better elsewhere – that providing clean water, more nutritious food, better healthcare, etc, would be a much more effective way to spend $100.  But if there’s anything I’ve learned in the past year, it is that my conceived notion of what is needed is very different a lot of times from what the people there actually want.  And who are we to tell them what they need?  Maybe these laptops really are what people there want, and they are completely satisfied with other aspects of their lives.  And if that is the case, then maybe this movement is actually a great one.  But if the laptops are a Western idea of what people in developing countries “need” being transferred around the world, then maybe we should take a second look.  I know that in my mind, those $100 could go a long way providing vaccines, higher quality food, clean water systems, more reliable electricity.  I’m excited to see for myself if this is a construct of my own ideas and notions, or whether people actually would prefer to get things other than these laptops.

Hopefully this proves to be a productive trip, and keep checking back for updates!  As I mentioned, I reallly have no clue what our arrangements will be, but internet should be readily available so hopefully this will get updated.

As I mentioned before, our team blog can be found at:


March 22, 2009

We’re off to Panama!

I’m traveling to Panama City, Panama for my class City to City to study an urban planning issue there that we have already begun looking at in Boston.  My research topic is around city imaging and marketing, and how cities try and create an image for themselves through programs, what the image is they are trying to create, and how successful they are.  BUT, it is going to be great to be in 90 degree weather again, speaking Spanish, going to cute cafes and such, and going to the beaaaach!    Not to mention seeing the Panama Canal!

Anyway, I will most likely have fairly decent access to internet there, so I will likely try and update this a bit while I’m there. =)

Long overdue, but I’m home!

February 8, 2009

After a crazy month in Peru followed by one of the busiest weeks back at MIT, I am going to finally sit down and sum up my experience in Peru.

All in all, the trip was wonderful and amazing, and I wouldn’t trade it  for anything.  The beauty of the country and the people there was absolutely breathtaking, and our work there was worthwhile and we finished everything!  One of the things that struck me the most was how excited and interested all of the people we worked with were about technology, and about the possibilities of improvement that it brought.  When we were in Amparaes, as soon as we had finished building our pedal-power blender/grinder and demonstrated its use, men from the town were asking us if you could do something similar to create electricity or do some other function that they were looking for.  Tio Hibo at the Westfalia orphanage was fascinated with how motors work, and how you can use that to make a windmill or other things.    However, the part of my trip that I will remember the most, and that I appreciated the most while there, was the genuine openness, hospitality, and selflessness that all of the people there exhibited.  I have never had more accomodating and wonderful hosts, especially like those in Amparaes.  These four people who had never heard of vegetarianism prior to our arrival suddenly started cooking everything vegetarian for all of us for the entire week we were there and never once complained about it.  When we walked around the town, people we had never met welcomed us into their homes, showed us different things that we asked about, and we literally had to insist many times that they not show us some thing that we were questioning them about that would require them to use up the last of their corn or firewood.  I miss eating dinner like a family every night in Amparaes, and chatting away in Spanish to the priest and hearing all these fascinating factoids and stories about the Incas and Amparaes, and hearing from him about the town.

Since I’ve been back, it’s been pretty hard readjusting to life here in the US.  You would think that after living 19 years here, being gone for one month wouldn’t change that much, but even after a day of being back, I realized how much of a change there was.  I feel incredibly antsy all the time, and unproductive, and desicions and activities that used to mean a whole lot to meet at first seemed so insignificant to the projects and ideas that we had been working on for the past month.  Classes have helped me settle that feeling a little, since now I actually have something I need to be doing, but I finally realized the other day on the Cambridgeside Shuttle what this deeper feeling of unsettledness was.  Everything here is so easy.  I can just hop on a free shuttle and go to the mall if I want, and while on this bus, I don’t have to guard my bag and make sure no one snags something.  I can carry my computer around with me, listen to my ipod in plain sight and not have to worry.  I can brush my teeth with the sink water, and fill up my water bottle there too.  I can shower in warm water whenever I want to, without having to work the electrical system to avoid being electrocuted while in the shower.  I don’t have to struggle every time I want to communicate with people, but I can just speak freely.  And while all of those things seem like inconveniences, I miss the inconvenience, the challenge of daily living.  I miss speaking a different language all the time, a beautiful language at that.  But most of all, I miss the genuineness of my time in Peru, both in my actions and what we were doing, and in my interactions with people there.  Everything here seems so much more fake and less meaningful compared to the people I had the priviledge of interacting with while in Peru.  And while I know on some levels I need to forget about that and move forward with my time at MIT before I miss some of my short time here, I also know that I will never forget the feeling of genuity I always felt in Peru.

Parting words from Lima

January 14, 2009

Today´s our last day in Lima!  The week has totally flown by in some ways, and in others I can barely remember the time before I was here – I feel like I´ve been in Peru for much  longer than a week.  I have greatly enjoyed our time in Lima, especially living at Westfalia.  The kids there were really amazing, and they took us in right away, were patient with my spanish, and took our stumbling around in workshops well and I think even learned some things.  That being said, between being there and at La Sagrada Familia, which is in the slums of northern Lima, I still feel like I´m missing something.  I think that it´s much more difficult to see and feel urban povety, especially across cultural lines.  Being the slums, I could tell that everyone living there was clearly living in poverty, but it´s not the same kind of poverty as we were taught about in D-Lab, so in some ways feels a bit less drastic.  It´s interesting because in the US, brand names are used as a status symbol, and I´ve noticed that in Peru they are definitely not, because you see all of these people in these slum areas that you know are poor wearing Adidas and Nike clothes, which took me a little while to get used to.  I have loved working with the people in Lima that we have been working with, looking at problems of urban poverty, and everything else, but I am excited to move to a more rural area and really experience that.  I´m glad that we will be able to see both sides of the coin while in Peru, and I think that I´m actually more interested in rural poverty issues, so I´ll get to see if that is actually the case.  In many ways, I think that rural poverty is much less complex because there is often much greater room to grow for them, and the problem is less about those people´s status and ability to survive in the complex system that a city is and more about giving them access to tools and resources that they can use to simply generate more money in a lot of cases.  I suppose I will find out in a few days if it actually is what I think it is.

¡Estoy en Peru!

January 10, 2009

Hello from Peru!  It´s great here, quite warm.  I just spent the last three days living in an orphanage outside of Lima called WEstfalia.  It was the most fantastic place ever – the kids were great, we ran a few workshops and they were also awesome, and we each got assigned a “casa” that would make it feel a little more like home, and we te all of our meals in our own casa.  I think my spanish is slowly coming back, since no one there spoke English so that was kind of cool.  We also playd nonstop games, and plenty of soccer.  I also managed to get literally about 50 bug bites a night, which was slightly unfortunate.  The food was good, it was interesting to see what they ate, and that it wasn´t terribly different from what we did, just in quantity and timing it was different.  They also drank almost no water which was killing me, since I am normally constantly drinking water in the US, but they literally would have a cup of powdered milk with breakfast (which definitely took some getting used to, by the way), and then that was basically it until maybe something after dinner.

Alright, time to book all of our tickets for Machu Picchu!

….and we’re off!

January 5, 2009

After spending eight hours in D-Lab working on projects today, and probably about that many more tomorrow, we will finally be leaving off to Peru super early Tuesday morning!

I am extremely excited, a bit nervous for some reason, but overall, I can’t wait for the trip.  I know I made the right decision in going, which is also nice.  I can’t wait to see how things work out while we’re there, to put my Spanish to the test, and to get my feet wet in what I hope will be a continued passion/life path.  I suppose in a way this is my first real test to see if all of the things that I’ve been excited about since high school actually will pan out, that I will actually enjoy the challenges, pitfalls, and satisfactions of international development work.  No pressure, D-Lab.

Amy’s parting words today will be mine, which are that in going on this trip, and in taking this class, we are reaffirming our belief that every one of us can make positive change in the world.  I am not expecting this overarching idea to suddenly happen on this trip because well, if it did, I suppose I would have made my change, right?  It’s going to be hard, different from anything that I have ever done, and a lot of the things that we have been working on might not work out.  But I’m ready.

Pedal-power washer

This is my team’s Pedal-power clothes washers for one of the orphanages we will be visiting, when it was 99% done.  Pretty exciting stuff!